Unlikely Heroines: Third In A Series
The only reason this heroine is unlikely is that she seems the type of woman who would have always toed the line, obeyed orders, never breached authority. I find her story so moving. Only the story of Beth's death, in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, had managed to make me cry that much by the time I was eleven years old, when I first read a biography of Ms. Cavell.
Edith Cavell was the daughter of an English rector, trained as a nurse and working as a hospital matron in Brussels, Belgium when World War I broke out. Belgium was occupied by the Germans; the hospital in which she worked was taken over by the Red Cross.
Her crime? While a nurse at a Red Cross-controlled hospital, she was accused of helping hundreds of Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium to the Netherlands, in violation of military law.
She was arrested and court-martialled by the Germans in 1915. She didn't contest the accusations and was shot at dawn on October 12 of that year.
An odd but interesting subtext about Edith Cavell concerns her martyrdom, its utility and inconvenience in terms of film censorship in Britain.
In 1928, a film about the heroic World War I nurse, Dawn, was produced amidst much controversy. In coverage by Time Magazine at that time: "Some felt, and some did not, that to project the story of Nurse Cavell once more upon the world would be to revive war mentality at its worst and embitter Anglo-German relations."
Cavell's story, which had been used to propagandistic advantage by the British government during the First World War, was greatly dramatized in the film. For instance, the execution scene in Dawn supposedly unfolded in this manner (described in the 1928 Time coverage): "One member of the German firing squad definitely refuses to level his rifle at Nurse Cavell and he is shot on the spot. The rest line up and at the order to fire each raises his rifle so that the bullets strike above the woman's head. Nurse Cavell, however, falls down in a faint and an officer steps forward and despatches her with a pistol. The pistol used in making the film was, by way of meticulous realism, a German Luger."
However, the Time article continued, "At Berlin, last week, Dr. Gottfried Benn, onetime Chief Surgeon for the German Army in the Brussels area, declared that he had been an eyewitness of the execution of Miss Cavell and had signed the certificate attesting her death. According to Dr. Benn, Nurse Cavell was blindfolded and tied by her hands to a stake. Thereafter she remained standing until 'hit and instantly killed by 12 bullets.'"
"The British Board of Film Censors banned Dawn as 'inexpedient,' thus drawing from the London Times a pompous twitter: "What is the nature of the inexpedience? . . . The adjective 'political' instantly suggests itself, and political censorship, in whatever discreet feathers it be dressed is, in England at least, a remarkably ugly bird.'"
To me, Cavell's story didn't need to be overdramatized and should never have been censored. Unvarnished, it was heroic enough:
The night before her execution, she had told the English chaplain comforting her, "I realize that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." These words are inscribed on her statue in St. Martin's Place, near Trafalgar Square in London.
In 1916, a mountain in the Canadian Rockies was named in her honor: Mount Edith Cavell.
After the war, Edith Cavell, originally buried in Belgium near the site of her execution, was reburied in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral.
Source material: wikipedia and Time Magazine archives.